“Ode to Bismark”
Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
Scripture: Mark 12:13-17 (NRSV)
13Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. 14And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? 15Should we pay them, or should we not?” But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” 16And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” 17Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him.
Bismarck the buffalo was not a happy fellow. He suffered from being too smart, too right, too clever. Igor the egret summed it up this way, It is a shame to be clever but unhappy.
While his friends, Orfo the orangutan and Zachary the zebra, were accustomed to his seriousness, they were unprepared for the dark turn the buffalo made one day. He went from being generally unhappy to grumpy. Bismarck became so grumpy that even the bugs on his back were unwilling to keep his company.
The grumpiness reach a critical mass one day when Bismarck made disparaging remarks about Orfo and Zachary. You see the orangutan and the zebra, as they often do, were quite fond of colorful underwear. They both had dozens of pairs of brightly colored boxer shorts that they wore with great zeal. They wore their underwear in to express a theme, to celebrate; sometimes they wore all their underwear at once, a thrill to be sure.
Bismarck in his grumpiness chastised them for their exuberance. He took offence at their fun. He queried them as to the purpose and usefulness of underwear. Can you eat it, he boomed? Can you run faster in it? He seemed quite put out that the only real use for wild underwear is that underwear is fun.
Fun made no sense to Bismarck. What use is fun?
And then Zachary and Orfo hatched an idea, what if they tested the buffalo? Maybe a test would help him understand the fun he refuses. Test him to see if he can say the word, “underwear,” three times without laughing. Bismarck accepted the test and proclaimed there would no laughing on his part. Yet, as you would of course expect, by the time he said, “underwear,” a second time he giggled. By the third time he chortled. Chortling makes you laugh at yourself so Bismarck soon was in full blown, rip roaring, side splitting laughter.
The outcome of the test was to show Bismarck that being clever is not enough. You need to be happy. Although not necessary, Bismarck was so taken with the experience of laughter and the word “underwear” that he too became a devotee of colorful boxer shorts and joined Orfo and Zachary in their fashion fun.
It is not a common interpretation, but I believe the Pharisees and Levites and the scribes and the priests all suffered from the grumpiness that dogged Bismarck the buffalo. Their question about taxes, their attempt to trick Jesus, their need to prove him wrong are all classic symptoms of people who have confused being faithful with being serious. The Pharisees were altogether too serious and this is obvious from their anger with Jesus.
If there is one thing we know about Jesus, it is that he was happy. We know this because the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist were quite put out by how much delight Jesus took in life: he dined with sinners and outcasts, he wasted gifts with extravagance, he willing to forgive without shame to make joy complete. In Luke we hear that Jesus was accused of being a drunkard and glutton.
Our reading today regarding taxes is intriguing in that it comes a day before our taxes are due. And I know paying taxes is not always fun. Perhaps it is never fun. So a sermon on the importance of happiness on the day before Tax Day may seem like a stretch. Yet, when would it be more important? Today more than other days is when we need to resist the temptation that took Bismarck from a bad mood to grumpy.
And what is more, what better Sunday than Palm Sunday to remember that we must never confuse being faithful with being serious; we must remember the joy of humility and come to the kingdom of God as a child: that is Palm Sunday.
Our first reading from Mark, the traditional Palm Sunday passage, serves a purpose that may not be clear. The description Mark gives of Jesus riding on a borrowed donkey, surrounded by his friends who shout for him, and the conclusion of no fanfare, no big moment when Jesus reaches the temple, this description is actually a kind of test. It is not as clever the test Zachary and Orfo conceived. But it is a helpful test to determine if we are living a good life, if we are following Jesus, and mostly, or most importantly, are we happy?
When our eldest son was in first grade, he had a young teacher who gave us a full explanation of the curriculum, the pedagogical theories employed, and the structure of the classroom in our conference with her. After she spoke for a good ten minutes or so, she asked if we have any questions. I said, “yes. Is he happy? Does Josh seem happy in class?”
The teacher stammered and squinted and tried to wrap her mind around the idea. So I spoke to give her time to consider the question. “You see he is six. I am thinking he has another twelve years to go. Being happy seems to be important if you are going to do something for that long.” Finally she said, “I don’t know if he is happy.”
Kathy told me later that the question seemed a bit unfair to her. And I didn’t mean the question to embarrass or befuddle, but to her point, it seemed to cause both. Maybe it was an unfair question, but delight is the key to learning and life for that matter.
The description of Mark of the Palm Sunday parade is much like the question I gave to the teacher. Only Mark is directing the question to us. Are you happy? Before you answer the question, consider the three parts of our passage and how they reveal a true measure of happiness. The first part is the impromptu, almost spontaneous quality of the parade. Jesus borrows a donkey and rides upon it without concern or worry. He is ready to be without much of anything. He makes no demands, makes no real plan, he lives the day. He lives without worry.
The first part of the happiness test in the Palm Sunday passage is a test of our readiness to live without worry, without dread, without the need to control. When you ride into town on a borrowed donkey, you are not trying to determine life. Not worrying sounds easy, but it takes a lot of effort and work and practice to live this free. It takes a lot of time to shed worry and dread and control, to live riding on a borrowed donkey. Yet until we do, we score low on the happy-meter.
The second part of the happiness test in the Palm Sunday story of Mark is that the friends of Jesus gathered around him and sang and shouted; they strew their cloaks, they cut down branches to celebrate his life. This part of the test seems simple but it is quite tricky. You see, Jesus not only has friends, he allows his friends to celebrate him, to lift him up. He was ready to accept the love and devotion of his friends.
Last week I was blessed to have a dear friend come for lunch. Kent Edmonds has been my friend for twenty years. We have hiked many trails, pounded many nails, and enjoyed a few malted beverages together. Kent has given me many, many things, but the one gift I will always treasure the most is the lesson he gave to me about friendship and love. When asked to serve as an elder on the session, Kent was quite clear how much the idea detested him. “I hate meetings and committees and everything like that.” And then he gave me the lesson: “But I will do it because I love you.”
I was flabbergasted. I floundered and sputtered some sort of nonsense about duty and calling and service until I realized how wrong I was. What better reason is there to do something than for love of another? Through the years I have seen this moment again and again. We all have friends, true. But are we ready to be loved? Are we ready to receive joy when offered?
Consider how many times you have refused a kindness, shunned a lovely gift, failed to accept the desire of a friend to celebrate your life? The chances are pretty good we have balked more than we have accepted. “I don’t want to be fussed over.” And with these words we fail the second test of Palm Sunday. If we live in worry and dread, we fail the first. If we cannot accept love with openness then we fail the second.
The last test is the most difficult to pass. I dare say, this last test is as hard as saying underwear three times without laughing. The third test is this: Jesus went in to the temple; it was late; he looked around and left. The test is that Jesus wasn’t disappointed; he was not offended by the absence of what should have been. The king of kings came to call and no one greeted him. Instead of demanding a proper outcome, a greeting fit for his life and ministry, it says he simply went back to Bethany, the house of the poor.
The messiah has entered the temple, the humble king who feeds the poor and heals the sick, the prophet preaching a baptism of spirit greater than Elijah has come to the house of God and there were crickets. No party. No celebration. Not even someone to say, “glad you are here.” To this, he took no offence. He kept no expectations that needed to be met.
Do you see how hard this test is? Can you imagine having no expectations? Can you consider what the day would look like where you took no offence, where you didn’t count the cost and expect people to treat you how you should be treated?
It is a very hard test, this last one. Yet, it is the place where we lose our joy the most. Nothing can drain the level of happiness more than when things don’t turn out how we plan, how we expect. When life is not how it should be, we head down the dark path of Bismarck the buffalo.
Many years ago I did a funeral for the town drunk. He mowed the church’s lawn a few times in the ‘70s so I was called to lead his funeral. It was quite an affair. His family was wild, uncontrolled, and lacked the sort of decorum one would expect of those in grief. And there were a lot of them.
Something unexpected happened as I listened to them describe his life and escapades. I found myself becoming more and more impressed that the life most would say he squandered was actually quite rich. He lived without worry; the funeral home was filled with family and friends who loved him without hesitation. And mostly, expectations and plans and determinations were left aside a long time ago.
With such freedom I took a chance in the funeral. I read the lyrics to the hobo song, ”The Big Rock Candy Mountains.” Before I read the lyrics, I was a bit worried that this would be offensive. But my worry was misplaced. When I started to read there were some confused looks
One evening as the sun went down
And the jungle fire was burning,
Down the track came a hobo hiking,
And he said, “Boys, I’m not turning
I’m headed for a land that’s far away
Besides the crystal fountains
So come with me, we’ll go and see
The Big Rock Candy Mountains
This was not a big poetry crowd shall we say. Yet all of a sudden, the lyrics stared to him home. The song speaks of
A land that’s fair and bright,
Where the handouts grow on bushes
And you sleep out every night
Where the boxcars all are empty
And the sun shines every day
On the birds and the bees
And the cigarette trees
The lemonade springs
This made sense and people started to nod as if this place was a good idea.
On the big rock candy mountain
hens lay soft-boiled eggs
The farmers’ trees are full of fruit
And the barns are full of hay
there ain’t no snow
Where the rain don’t fall
The wind don’t blow
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
You never change your socks
At this line a granddaughter stopped me by shouting, Oh that is so grandpa; he never changed his socks. The nodding changed to shouts of affirmation as I concluded with
Little streams of alcohol
Come trickling down the rocks
There’s a lake of stew
And of whiskey, too
You can paddle all around ’em
In a big canoe
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
Looking out at the rather rough crowd now hooting and hollering I could see a group of people who have a very good chance of passing the Palm Sunday test of happiness. Sure after the funeral another granddaughter and her boyfriend came to blows over an argument. At this moment the poetic luster was lost a bit. Be it in poems or parades, the people gathered to bid farewell to the man who never changed his socks had much more likelihood of passing the Palm Sunday test than the folks who wanted to know about taxes. I am sure the Pharisees didn’t pass the test. The question is of course, will we? Amen.
- Mark 11:1 - 11
- Mark 12:13 - 17